|Although Boca Brava was peaceful and the island quite beautiful, our time had come to say good-bye to crazy Frank, and explore the rest of Panama. After researching a bit in our new-found friends Amy and Cedar´s Panama guide book, we decided to head to the Peninsula de Azuero, where supposedly the ¨heart of Panama¨could be found. And who doesn´t want to find that? We back tracked up the 18km dirt road, then hailed a bus on the InterAmericana highway en route to Panama City. Buses will stop for you pretty much anywhere along this road. There are rarely any designated bus stops. Even if it is screaming down the road at 50 mph, if you wave your hand, and are lucky enough to have the driver see you, he´ll slam on the breaks, and you have to then scramble up the road to where he has finally come to a complete stop. An adventure always. This particular bus was quite luxurious, with air conditioning, and a Mr. Bean movie already in action. wow. We love Panama. Our destination was Divisa, where we then had to try and catch another bus to Chitre, apparently the ¨hub¨of the peninsula, and a convenient spot to then explore the surrounding villages.
Some travel days just work out way better than others, and this was one of them. We unloaded ourselves from the Four Seasons bus, and walked through Divisa a bit aimlessly in search of our next transport. When in doubt, we ask. The kind man directed us just around the corner, where a tiny little van seemed to be waiting for us... it was that convenient. Another air conditioned and comfy ride for the next hour to Chitre.
Although it offered little in the way of spectacular sights or beautiful vistas, we found Chitre to be very pleasant, and after our 3 days there, we had navigated ourselves quite well around the little city. There was a gorgeous church in the town square, that was never without a crowd. There seemed to be masses being held continuously. So many, that we even felt drawn to check one out ourselves, if only for a few minutes.
We got a kick out of the plethora of Dollar Stores in town. Just one right after the other. ¨Todo por un Balboa!¨ (Balboa is simply another term for dollar, as the American dollar is the currency here). We toured through one of these gigantic eyesore of a store, and that was enough to keep us out of all the others. Customer service has entered a new level here in Panama. When you enter a store, you are literally followed throughout your entire shopping experience. Pick up a shirt, put it down, and the salesperson, who is standing on your heals, immediately refolds it. No room to breathe, really. When you let them know you´re ¨just looking¨ you recieve a strange glance, as no one here really ¨just looks.¨ Which is another thing we have noticed. The rate of consumption here is extravagant. Everyone seems to be shopping, and all the stores are seemingly the same, which is very very strange. And when they´re all dollar stores, there´s not much price competition going on.
Shopping was not our main agenda in Chitre, of course, so we took a couple little side trips to they outlying villages. This area is known for its handicrafts, each village having its ¨specialty.¨ We went first to Arena, the home of ceramics. Store after store of beautiful ceramics and pottery, handpainted pots and artwork. The only hard part was not being able to buy a thing, as it was exceptionally cheap. Tough to get pottery back to the states.
We also found the best grilled chicken to date in Arena. Pollo, or chicken, is consumed at a very rapid rate here in central america. Fried, broiled, grilled, you name it. Chicken is the food of choice. Most of it has been mediocre, and Mandy especially is always skeptical about where all those chickens are coming from, as well as their living conditions, so it has taken her a bit of getting used to to eat it so often. There was a man grilling chicken outside is home, on the street in Arena. Looked decent, and clean, and smelled quite good. So we tried it. Served with a ¨special¨grilling sauce atop Yucca. Delicious. Man told us it was a ¨family recipe¨which Jon instantly (and jokingly) interpreted as ¨from a bottle.¨
Our next day trip from Chitre was not as fulfilling. We decided to hop a bus to Ocú, an hour outside Chitre, known for it´s woven hats. It is a strange, and exhilirating feeling, if you may, to wake up in the morning, knowing you are simply going to go explore a villlage, and see.... hats. Of course there are PEOPLE there as well, who wear the hats, and they are also fun to see. But, life does feel quite different in the morning, when your agenda for the day is simply to explore and learn and see. The bus to Ocú was longer than expected. But, buses are a means to an end, and also a way to see the country. We pull up to Ocú. hmmmm. Why did we come here again? The town simply had nothing to see. A few stores filled with plastic trinkets for sale, a small cafeteria style restaurant, and a town square that needed a bit of remodeling. We recieved some serious stares as we walked the tiny streets of Ocú, a sure sign that not many tourists pass through here. We certainly could have just hopped right back on the bus and headed back to Chitre, but something in our hearts told us that wouldn´t have been fair, to this sleepy little town, or its people who spend their days here. There must be SOMETHING to see here. Found the town´s cemetary in the distance, and made that our destination... strangely.
We spent all of an hour in the town, saw pretty much all there was to see, except, where were the hats? Maybe we had gotten that part wrong.
Back on the bus. Feeling a bit bummed about spending a full day traveling, and a bit more money for the bus rides as we would have liked, but such is traveling. Ocú is special in its own way, for sure.
We spent one more night in our little hostal in Chitre, and then felt as though we were ready to move right along towards Panama City. Back on a bus we go.